Reviews:: Josh Ritter The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter

Is it fair to judge a new record on the success of the last one? Of course not, so you can probably ignore everything I'm about to say about Josh Ritter's new record - The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter. I'm not sure he could have come back with anything that hit me as hard as Animal Years, an album that provided the soundtrack to so many events of the last two years for both Nic and I.

That's why expectations for this record were set to an unreachable level. Make no mistake, Ritter is a fantastic song writer with the ability to tell stories and draw you in. This record, while adventurous, challenging and very enjoyable, plays off as a swelling cacophony of sounds that at times hides his wonderful lyrics.

Before you jump into the "every record is different / he wants to grow" argument, I know and I don't really care. While that may come of as trite, when it comes to my favorite musicians and favorite foods, I don't always want huge changes. Ritter wanted to create a more full sound on this record, and he definitely succeeded. When it works, it's a terrific shift from his typical sound (the AM radio vibe of Right Moves is something I never expected from him, especially with the booming horns, but it sounds great), but sometimes trying to find a specific sound or taste leads to a mix of flavors that is overwhelming.

The album opens with To the Dogs or Whoever, a track that mixes so many elements that's it's hard to keep up. Ritter still delivers interesting lyrics with an off-kilter folk poet diction ("is it KC Jones or Casey at the bat"), but the piano thrashing and muddled chorus is a bit too much at times. Rumors kind is spirals in the same directions. The intro offers a nice build with horns and a head nodding rhythm section, but the constant shift in direction makes the track hard to digest. Real Long Distance breaks down into another aural explosion that makes you take a step back.

For me, Ritter is at his best when he focuses on his guitar or piano and his pen. Temptation of Adam uses a simple finger picked riff and some string parts at just the right times, but the star of the show is Ritter's narrative about love and the apocalypse. The rollicking nature of Open Doors continues perfectly, adding a driving drum beat without cluttering the mix.

Still Beating
and Empty Hearts expose all of Ritter's talents. A tight narrative, a simple, beautiful chord progression and sweeping elements to help beef up the mix at times, but he finds a melody and runs with it. These are the type of songs that turned me on to Ritter, and as a result are the ones I gravitate towards.

He's able to add sonic exploration (something he's always been able to do even in the folk realm) without having to jump trains. On the surface, Wait for Love is a simple arrangement, but it's never boring. Keyboards, piano and percussion all enter and leave the song like actors in a play. They say their lines and move on, almost unnoticed, without stealing the spotlight from the main actors.

Even some of the more rocking songs - like Mind's Eye - show Ritter experimenting with success. The tempo and chaos work nicely, with the jam session feedback and meandering of the electric guitar jetting into your headphones nicely, I just find the record to use too many styles, too many voices, and the end result suffers.

Is it a good album? Without question, it's just not as good as I hoped it would be. Is that more my issue than Ritter's? Probably, but when I listen to beautiful, spirited tracks like Next To the Last Romantic I sigh, wondering how good this album really could have been if he wasn't so focused on experimentation and just let his uncanny song writing take over.
MP3:: To the Dogs or Whoever
MP3:: Rumors - Live in Berlin
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